Like femininity and race, class is a key factor in determining what the girl’s life will be and what will be expected of her. Kincaid never directly tells the reader that the girl is middle-class, but she implies through the advice that Mother gives that the family is middle-class and that maintaining this status is of vital importance to the girl’s future. As with other aspects of her identity, the girl’s class background determines what she can and cannot do, constricting her ability to express herself and suggesting that she should not do things that are outside the strict norms of her social class.
Mother draws distinctions between the different types of men that the girl will encounter, and her distinctions are subtly class-based. Kincaid does not identify anyone specifically as lower-class or within the same class, but she delineates who they are based on how they ought to be treated.
For example, Mother forbids the girl from talking to the “wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions.” The specific instructions not to talk to these boys, even if they need help, suggests that they are unworthy of acknowledgement. Due to both poverty and their possible engagement in criminal activity, any association with them would risk being perceived as unclean or un-ladylike and would threaten the stability of the girl’s class position.
Mother’s instructions on how to entertain are also based on middle-class standards and values, and seem explicitly designed to ensure that the girl’s class status is clear to others. The girl should know how to set a table for breakfast and lunch, as well as how to prepare “dinner with an important guest,” and “set a table for tea.” Knowing how to set tables for several meals and occasions indicates, not only adherence to table manners (a possible class marker), but also the expectation that she will own certain items, such as a tea set and silverware, which would not be available to a poor woman.
However, Mother says that there will also be instances in the girl’s life in which she will not have enough to cover basic necessities. For these times, Mother shows her “how to make ends meet.” This detail, along with the lessons on how to prepare food and clothes, tells the reader that the family does not have a lot of money, but they have enough to live with some comforts. It seems that Mother’s emphasis on the importance of cultivating the appearance of being middle-class is meant to safeguard against falling from esteem during times when the girl cannot afford to maintain middle class norms.
Kincaid illustrates class in the narrative through materialism and snobbery. Openness to everyone is akin to being a “slut,” while knowing how to present one’s home, particularly to “an important guest,” during meals and teatimes is indicative of middle-class domesticity. The understanding that the girl will grow up to live in a house where she will have the means to eat—and, more importantly, serve—three meals a day creates the expectation that she will be middle-class.
Class Quotes in Girl
You mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even to give directions.
This is how you smile to someone you don’t like too much; this is how you smile to someone you don’t like at all; this is how you smile to someone you like completely; this is how you set a table for tea; this is how you set a table for dinner; this is how you set a table for dinner with an important guest; this is how you set a table for lunch; this is how you set a table for breakfast; this is how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well, and this way they won’t recognize immediately the slut I have warned you against becoming.